From the end of March to early May, sakura are blooming all over Japan. In Tokyo, they usually bloom in the beginning of April. Every time sakura or cherry blossom come to Japan, the Japanese are celebrating a picnic, which they call Hanami. “Hana” means flower, and “Mi” comes from the word “Miru”, which means “to see”. Hanami means having an outdoor party to see the beauty of sakura during day or night time.
The tradition of Hanami emerged centuries ago. Many said it started during the Nara Period (710-784 BC) but it didn’t actually start in Japan. Hanami is said to have been influenced by the Chinese custom of enjoying flowers. Japan adopted this custom, but focused primarily on the short life of the blossoms and their beauty.
People at that time believed in the existence of gods inside the sakura trees and started laying offerings at the base of the trees. Afterwards, they partook of the offering, along with sake or Japanese rice wine. Emperor Saga of the Heian Period adopted this practice, and held flower-viewing parties with sake and feast underneath the blossoming sakura trees. Originally, Hanami was limited to the elite of the Imperial Court in Kyoto, but soon spread to samurai society and by the Edo Period, to the common people as well. Since then, the Japanese people continued on with the tradition.
Due to the importance of Hanami to the Japanese, each year the Weather Bureau of Japan announces the blossom forecast, which they call, sakurazensen. This forecast is carefully monitored by those planning to conduct Hanami rituals, as the blossom only last a week or two. Since the window was very short, and there was always the risk of the celebration being held on a windy or rainy day, people really make the most of the cherry blossoms in order to observe Hanami.
Tokyo has many fantastic places ensconced in cherry blossom trees including castles, temples, shrines (Shinto temple), and formal gardens. Among the more popular places are Ueno park, Shinjuku Gyoen, Imperial Palace, Asakasa Sacas, Roppongi Hill, Meguro river, and Aoyama Cemetary.
Early in the morning, I took my first walk to Ueno Park, one of the biggest public park in Tokyo. To enter and do Hanami in Ueno park is free, thus, the park is crowded with people wanting to do Hanami ceremonies. Companies organize trips for employees and their family member usually claim spots by arriving very early in the morning and sitting all day long until the real celebration begin in the evening. It is not uncommon for men in business suits to sit and wait under sakura trees early in the morning to reserve spaces for his colleagues in the company. Often, it is the new employee who is given this arduous task of sitting all day long.
I always find it difficult to find a free spot at Ueno Park during cherry blossom season. There are more than a thousand sakura trees in Ueno Park, lining up along the street leading to the National Museum and around Shinobazu Pond. This makes Ueno Park a perfect spot for viewing and makes for memorable pictures of the blooming cherry blossoms. I move and sway along with the crowd of Ueno Park and feel the cheerfulness spreading all over the place.
From Ueno park, I went to my favorite spot to view cherry blossoms, Shinjuku Gyoen or Shinjuku Park. It is a Western and Japanese style garden which also features more than a thousand sakura trees of different varieties. I took a train directly from Ueno Station to Shinjuku Station, a trip that usually takes about 30 minutes. To enter Shinjuku Gyoen, people pay 300 yen per person. Not an expensive amount, but could limit enough the number of people who enter the park.
The crowd in Shinjuku Gyoen is less than Ueno Park. I could easily find a spot under a sakura tree. There are spacious lawn areas, and the atmosphere is calm and peaceful. I took my friend and family to Shinjuku gyoen for Hanami. We spread plastic mats under our chosen sakura tree and brought out our food and drinks. All around us, kids were laughing and running along. Sometimes they tried to catch the sakura flower buds that were floating gently in the air, before they fall to the ground.
Another favorite spot for me to view cherry blossoms in Tokyo is along the Meguro River. I usually go to Meguro River early in the evening and stay there later into the night. Cherry blossom trees line the Meguro riverside so when the flowers are in bloom, limbs heavy with flowers dangle over banks of the river. I enjoy the glittering shadow of cherry blossoms that comes from the spotlight along the river, and their reflections on the surface of the water. When I see the fallen flower buds flow with the river current, I could feel serenity grow inside my soul.
In 1912, Japan gave 3,000 sakura trees as a gift to the United States to celebrate the friendship between two nations. So today, you can also see the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC. The sakura trees has also become a popular tourist attraction in Washington, DC, when they reach full bloom in early spring. Thus, during this time, Americans also celebrate the Annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.
The beauty of cherry blossoms always reminds me of the meaning of a gifted life. Cherry blossoms look beautiful, but only last for a very short time. Sometimes we take for granted what we have in life, because we think we will have them every day – our family, our health, or our jobs. Cherry blossoms remind us that we should always thank God for the precious moments we have been given and the beauty of life that He gives us every day.
That night my daughter asked me to sing a Japanese traditional song before she went to bed: Sakura/sakura/noyamamo satomo/miwatasu kagiri/kasumi-ka kumo-ka/asahi-ni ni ou/sakura-sakura/hanazakari. (Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms. On mountains, in villages. As far as you can see. They look like fog or clouds. They are fragrant in the morning sun. Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms. In full bloom).
The beautiful imagery must have lulled her to a peaceful and dreamy sleep, for I have left her with a half smile blooming in her face, her pink cupid lips like a beautiful cherry blossom greeting the spring sun.
PS. This article is also published in Venture Magazine, Indonesia, June 2011